Art, History, and Our Common Future

By Candy Hill

A Conversation with Dr. Johnnetta Cole

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole has served as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art since 2009, and she serves on the Scholar Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. An anthropologist by training, she was the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College, and she was also the president of Bennett College. In 2006, IS awarded her the John W. Gardner Leadership Award.

What is the role of art and culture in communicating and addressing society’s triumphs as well as its tragedies?

Not every artist explicitly wants to communicate society’s triumphs and tragedies. However, art can be an effective means for putting a spotlight on what is good and what is deeply problematic in the everyday life of a people, a society, or the world.

Let me illustrate the point I am making by referencing the work of two African artists who will be honored when my museum, the National Museum of African Art, hosts its first annual African Art Awards Dinner on October 28th. The first artist, Yinka Shonibare, MBE was born in London and grew up in Nigeria. He uses his art to ask probing questions. The mannequins featured in his installations are dressed in Dutch wax cloth, which itself is an interrogation about trade and relationships between European and African countries. But interestingly, all of the figures in Shonibare’s installations are headless. This is his way of saying that we are not thinking and addressing issues like: The growing shortage of clean water around the world. I understand that he also leaves the heads off his mannequins as a conscious strategy to bring ambiguity into the racial identity and politics of the ideas his works explore.

The other artist is Ato Malinda, a Kenyan performance artist and an activist around LGBTQ issues. Again, I am struck by the power of art to raise difficult questions, to make statements not by standing on a platform and preaching, but through the amazing process called human creativity and the capacity for art to awaken our minds as well as our senses.

When I’m welcoming our visitors to the National Museum of African Art, I often say that African art has a special importance and power in today’s world, precisely because there is so much separating of the human race into categories that divide rather than unite. Art from Africa can remind us of what binds us together. Art from the continent of Africa or created by artists who are African reminds us that every human being no matter one’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, nationality, ability or disability — every individual, if he or she will simply go back far enough, is descended from the cradle of humanity, which is Africa.

Can you say what you think this means to the philanthropic community to have participated in and supported this important piece of American history and now this building of this museum?

Bringing into reality the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture did not happen without challenges, one of which was how the quarter of a billion dollars appropriated by Congress would be matched by efforts at the Smithsonian. But founding director Lonnie Bunch and the advancement team at his museum, working with the central advancement team at the Smithsonian, have succeeded in not only reaching the goal of a quarter of a billion dollars, they have exceeded that goal. I’m both amazed and grateful—I mean, seriously grateful—for the way the philanthropic community has stepped forward to assist the Smithsonian in raising these funds. Corporation after corporation, foundation after foundation, wealthy individual after wealthy individual — have all contributed funds to support this new museum and the dialogues its exhibitions and programs will engender among the local, national, and international audiences that the Smithsonian serves.

I am most impressed by the gifts to this new museum that have come from African Americans and others who have limited financial resources. There’s been an outpouring of monetary support from people who have sent in $5, $10, $25 because they want to be a part of making this museum a reality.

Please share with us your assessment of where corporations, colleges and universities, and museums are in terms of efforts to diversify these institutions.

An increasing number of corporations, many of whom are a part of Independence Sector, have come to the position that bringing greater diversity to their firms would not only be the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. These American businesses have come to see that if they wish to compete effectively in the global market place, in a world that is highly diverse, they will have to bring far greater diversity to their corporate boards, their employees, and to how they presented their products and services.

The same has happened at many colleges and universities. That is, they have come to see that without diversity on their boards; among their faculty, staff and students, and certainly in terms of their curricula, they cannot adequately prepare students for living in the diverse world of the 21st century. In order to fund changes that will lead to far greater diversity and inclusion on their campuses, many higher education institutions have turned to the philanthropic community for assistance.

Today as I work in the world of art museums, I am constantly reminded of how we simply must do better around questions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. One of my colleagues, the recently retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, has quipped that every director of an art museum in the United States must read one book, because it’s the most important book for them to read: It’s the American Census. Our nation has always been diverse, but it is increasingly so. Indeed, in not too many years, folks who are called the minority will be the majority in America.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation worked with the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums to carry out the first-ever compositional diversity survey of American art museums. Here are some of the findings from the Mellon survey. When we look at art museum professionals, 28 percent are people of color. And where are these folk of color working? The majority, the overwhelming majority, are our security guards and the women and men who clean our museums. When you look at the top positions in our museums—curators, conservators, educators—only 4 percent are African American, and only 3 percent are Hispanic. 60 percent of the professional staff in American art museums are women. That’s a good thing! But they are overwhelmingly white women. And when you look at these museums, the larger the budget and the more prestigious the museum, the greater the chance the director is a man and not a woman. When we look at our exhibitions and our educational programs, people of color and women are still underrepresented The LGBTQ community continues to be underrepresented in the exhibitions and educational programs in American art museums. The same can be said about people who are differently-abled.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art PHOTO: Jessica Suwaroff

Here is some additional information about American art museums and questions of diversity. Only 9 percent of individuals who visit American art museums are people of color, and 91 percent of the individuals on museum boards are White.

Clearly, in the interests of bringing greater diversity and an inclusive culture to museums, businesses, and education, we still have a lot of work to do.

You have been quoted as saying that “we are for difference, for allowing difference, for encouraging difference, until difference no longer makes a difference.”

Today, more than ever before, across our world we need to stand up for and celebrate the many ways in which we human beings are different. In so many communities here in my nation, and indeed around the world, countless people suffer and are subjected to violence because of the color of their skin, their gender, gender identity, religion, and other human attributes. So if ever there was a time to hope for and work for a day when we would have a world where difference is respected, allowed, encouraged, and celebrated, it is now!

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Arts, Culture, and Humanities, ISQ, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell